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March 12, 2012

Overcoming Switching Inertia: Beyond “Feature Creep”

A few of my recent projects have involved moving consumers away from competing brands or substitutes toward a soon-to-be better product.  They got me thinking about how to best induce consumers to change ingrained behavior and switch brands.  The obvious answer is to build in more attractive functionality and/or aesthetics and win them over on product superiority grounds.  Leapfrog competition, if you will.  The assumption here is that when consumers spot the merits of the improved product in advertising or on shelf, they will shamelessly jilt the product they currently use for a relationship that promises more.  They will match their needs with listed features, and make the decision that any rational consumer would:  Switch!

But we know that more often than not, they don’t.  Cognitive and behavioral inertia is a powerful, insidious force that will often defeat the most compelling feature proliferation in many categories.  While age-old “feature creep” gives us more to say to consumers, inertia may be a huge barrier to switching in your category.  Particularly if it is characterized by the following dynamics:

  • Relationship Complexity:  Sometimes, a product can be “installed” in the life of a user in ways that make it very difficult to rip out.  A subscription billing system for wine or flowers might be a too-tangible example.   More subtly, maybe an existing product benefits from a simple contextual advantage:  That bottle of orange juice fits perfectly in my refrigerator door.  And my refrigerator is organized just as I want it.  In some fashion, the product is cleverly entrenched, and only severe dissatisfaction may dislodge it.
  • Lost Investment:  An existing financial commitment to an incumbent product will make consumers feel wasteful if they were to switch.  Perhaps a fairly expensive hair care system would be a good example.  Or multi-packs of anything.  While the intention to try something new may be there, too much prior effort and money may be tied up in something else.  And by the time they work through the inventory, you’re no longer front and center.   So, rinse and repeat.
  • Adjustment Risk:  Sometimes, there’s the fear that a new product will take time to get used to.  This may occur most often in household cleaning and personal care categories.  As a consumer, I may be convinced that a new product offers the right feature set, but what if it doesn’t work right for me?  After all, my wood floors are different from others.  So is my skin and hair.  Or, what if I can’t figure out how to use it properly?  Too much potential for trial and error.  Too much adjustment.  Too much risk.
  • It Ain’t Broke:  Consumers have a hard time thinking that a new product would perform better than one they are presently satisfied with.  If the current product works “perfectly”, how could another be better?  What they don’t realize is that what they think is perfect is far from the utterly blissful experience they could be having with another.  They can’t imagine what that would be like, so they remain loyal to the objectively adequate.
  • Brand Master:  Many consumers have preconceived notions about the brands that are right for them.  Brand attributes align with their values.  They trust that the brand and the product would not do them wrong.  This one is hard to defend against since the relationship can span generations in a family and has strong emotional underpinnings.  That’s why consumer goods manufacturers spend so much building their brands.  And why dormant brands are bought.  There probably isn’t a stronger force in preserving the status quo.  Then again, my mom used Tide and I prefer the yellow bottle with an arm on it.

Brand issues aside, I spoke with a colleague recently who brought many of the above points home for me.  He has been using the same two-bladed razor for 20 years.  When I asked him why, he said:  “The old handle has a great feel to it”.  I asked him if he ever held one of the newer handles.  “Why would I?” (It Ain’t Broke).   “I have scoured the earth for all the remaining cartridges” (Lost Investment).   And, “How could 5 blades be smoother than just 2?”  After I tried to explain how, he replied: “Sounds complicated” (Adjustment Risk).   There is no question that if he were to try the latest technology, he would berate himself for not making the move years ago.  Why won’t he?  The cognitive/behavioral trappings of Switching Inertia.

So, if you live in a category where feature proliferation has always dominated, but switching inertia is the real barrier to growth, maybe it’s time to rethink your approach to innovation.  Or at least broaden it to include addressing the underlying causes of loyalty to competition.  Spend some time understanding how switching inertia operates in your category.  Why do consumers admit that your product is functionally superior, yet still neglect to try it?  How do they define the relationship they have with their existing product?  What role does the product play in their life that gives it a contextual advantage that redefines performance?

What are some examples of what you could do to overcome Switching Inertia?  Well, it depends on the category.  Maybe you could offset a consumers’ previous investment in time and money.  Maybe you could align with the contextual benefits she expects in a broader relationship.  Maybe you could ensure a fail-safe, easy-adjustment experience.  At the very least, maybe you could work harder to make product advancements more intuitive and easier to understand.  Once again—how could five blades scraping my face possibly give me a smoother shave than two?

Consider product performance beyond inherent features, including all relationship benefits and how they create switching risk for consumers.  Feature Creep is sometimes due to the mindless pursuit of functional superiority.  Though it’s often not mindful of why consumers can easily turn away from a “better” product.

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